Professor of Food Safety and Veterinary Public Health, Nigel French, says factors such as human beings’ population growth, desire for world travel, changes in the production and consumption of an increasing variety of food, urban expansion and the encroachment into wildlife habitats could see the evolution of further agents of infectious disease, including the mutation of spreadable viruses.
Professor Nigel French
It is an issue that is the subject of a workshop in June being held jointly by the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution and the Infectious Diseases Research Centre. Professor French is director of the latter. Both centres are hosted by Massey University.
The workshop will examine how viruses and bacteria evolve and change and are spread between wildlife, domestic animals and man.
“It’s difficult to predict where, when and in what form new agents will emerge, science is getting better at it but the scientific community is still also being caught by surprise,” Professor French says.
It is important that scientists “ keep ahead of the curve” in terms of being able to contain the rapidity and scale of any outbreak, buying time for the development of control strategies, including the production of effective vaccines, he says.
“The concern is how the agents are mutating and reassorting within animals and whether they are given the opportunity to transmit from animals to humans and then develop the capacity to transmit between people, and, more importantly, be sustained by this person to person spread.”
In 2003 the Severe Acute respiratory Syndrome or SARS epidemic was containable because those affected generally became ill before they were particularly infectious, which limited its spread.
Professor French says there was potential for a more severe epidemic if the virus was spread from one human to another before any initial sign of illness became apparent.
He was reassured that in the decade since the SARS outbreak science had continued to develop some sophisticated tools to identify and address new viruses, but the continuing absence of an effective vaccine for HIV reminds us that science does not always provide timely solutions to deal with emerging issues.